How to act like a superstar scholar

Mark Readman offers a guide to help selfish academics ensure that everyone at a conference knows they are very special indeed

December 15, 2016
Daniel Mitchell illustration (15 December 2016)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

As most academics know, your own work and time are more important than anyone else’s. That truth is particularly important to bear in mind at academic conferences. This 11-point guide (you’re worth more than 10) explains how self-respecting selfish scholars should conduct themselves at such events.

1 Book your travel wisely
Don’t feel obliged to put yourself out to meet the start and finish times set by the organisers, which are rarely realistic. It’s likely that the most convenient travel arrangements will entail your arriving well after the registration period, which obviates the need for you to queue for your badge and ensures personalised service from front-desk staff. It’s also likely that you’ll have to leave early, but the final session of a conference is so poorly attended that it’s not worth staying for.

2 Keep hydrated
There will be an abundance of liquid refreshment available – make the most of it. This may require more frequent visits to the lavatory, but you can excuse yourself from sessions whenever necessary. Coffee breaks are never long enough, so take your time, even if it means being a few minutes late for the next session – schedules are only ever indicative.

3 Pick a good seat
Although you are likely to need to leave presentations more than once (see point 2), don’t feel obliged to occupy an inferior seat near the door – you’ve paid your fee (or your institution has), so you deserve a prime position. Ignore the protests of your colleagues as you slide past them, stepping on their feet and spilling their coffee – academics are notoriously sensitive. When you return, under no circumstances feel pressured into taking a different seat. You must be well placed for the Q&A session.

4 Make the most of your questions
Although it’s unlikely that any speaker is going to tell you anything you didn’t already know, the Q&A is a great opportunity for you to impress other delegates with your unique and discerning take on a subject. Always begin by thanking the speaker for a fascinating talk (courtesy costs nothing), then find a link to your own work, however tenuous. Skilled practitioners offer a lengthy peroration on their most recent research project or publication and then ask: “…and I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?”

5 Be selective
Most conferences will contain only a few relevant or interesting sessions, so make the most of your “down time” to get on with something more important. There are usually plenty of public spaces for you to do this, which have the advantage of being within sight or earshot of keynote or parallel sessions, so you can always slip in late if it looks like you’re missing out on something worthwhile.

6 Panel-surf
Conference organisers seem perversely skilled at scheduling the few things that interest you across different parallel sessions, so be prepared to flit between them. Again, do not feel you need to take a seat by the door to minimise the impact of your exit, and neither should you enter the next session apologetically or quietly. Be assertive in taking your new seat, even if this means walking in front of a poorly positioned projector; if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the conclusion of the previous speaker’s presentation, which will enable you to ask a question (see point 4).

7 Multitask
If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in an irrelevant session, but for some reason feel obliged to stay (one of the speakers might be attractive, for example), use the time to check your emails – people will assume that your noisy typing is “note-taking”.

8 Share the benefits of your expertise
Not all academics are as adept at presenting as you are. If, during a presentation, you perceive some infelicity of expression or lack of precision in terminology, do interject with a query or clarification; although they may not say so, your colleagues will be grateful. You may even pre-empt some of the questions at the end (for which there will now be less time).

9 Take your time
When presenting your own paper, make sure to take more than the 15 or 20 minutes on offer. It is impossible for you to communicate the detail and complexity of your work in such an impoverished period, and extra time is always available for those with something significant to offer. If you are unlucky enough to have a particularly vigilant chairperson who insists that your time is up, simply smile charmingly and promise to finish in a minute. This can very easily be extended to three, then five, and so on. Alternatively, avoid eye contact with anyone in the room (see point 10).

10 Read, don’t ‘speak’
When presenting, remember that you are giving an academic paper, not a speech at a wedding. Your audience expects depth and rigour, so read, verbatim, from your written paper. Since you spent considerable time crafting it, don’t deviate from it, even at the risk of occasionally appearing unfamiliar with your own writing – or, indeed, any form of animated human communication.

11 Remember why you’re there
Your institution has invested heavily in you (paying your travel, accommodation and conference fee) because you’re worth it. When you have presented, your work is done and you deserve to indulge in all of the pleasures of travel. Cultural enrichment is not merely your right, it’s an obligation – no one could seriously expect you to waste all your time in a conference venue, and, after all, your partner has come along for a mini-break.

Mark Readman is a principal academic in media education at Bournemouth University.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: You're a star – shine

Reader's comments (7)

I was with you until number 10. Please, do not under any circumstances 'read your paper'. These are dull sessions and you lose the crowd straight away. Papers are meant to be read by the reader. Your presentation is your opportunity to give the audience an overview of your research, the key points. It's your opportunity to interest people in finding out more, not make them wish they'd gone to another session. Don't use too much text on your slides, and don't read what's on the slides - just use them to help you and the listeners navigate what you're saying. Better still, get rid of the slides. The best conference I ever went to, they banned slides and told us to talk to each other. I'm still having the conversations ten years later with academics from across the world. That never happened before. If they're interested, they'll read the paper in the comfort of their own homes.
This is an excellent satire on everything that's wrong with the academic conference. They should be banned altogether and the money used to fund more teaching hours for neglected students.
@Jonathan Baldwin er, does that mean you think numbers 1-9 are perfectly reasonable propositions? Or are you trying to out-satirise the satirist?!
May I make it a 12-point guide? Universalise, don’t localise. You speak the greatest language, spoken right round the world, right? So your research is universal too. Don’t suggest your findings only came from here in UK/Oz/NZ/US, so might just only apply here. That kind of humble ‘we need research in other countries’ stuff is for all those foreigners in your audience. Your findings are already universal, like your language. Speak grandly. Speak universally. And hey don’t for a minute think that the findings could be just because we do things oddly here. And remember, if anyone questions the wider applicability of your research to their country, just say, “well I don’t know the circumstances over there, so I’ve no idea”. That way you localise them, not you.
This satire is funny, it even has been translated into Chinese by somebody, and spread in academia of China
Good satire, but where does reality end and satire begin in the modern world? Remember also to use words that no one understands and end a word in each paragraph with 'space' or '-ality'.
Hilarious. And so true. You forgot: "Feel free to work noisily and obviously on your forthcoming book in the middle of someone else's presentation"

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